Friday, September 26, 2008

REVIEW: Black Angel: Vol. 1 - Takashi Ishii (1997)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Even though I am a big fan of Japanese bad boy director Seijun Suzuki, let me play devil's advocate here for a second. It could be easily argued that his landmark films "Tokyo Drifter" and "Branded to Kill" amongst others were strictly a case of style over substance, that he took cookie cutter yakuza eiga scripts and prettied them up with creative editing, surreal imagery and, in the case of the latter, elaborate colour coding of scenes to heighten emotional impact. Then all of a sudden "Voilà!" we have instant classic by an important cinematic auteur. At their heart though these films were still built around pat, formulaic scripts and thus in the end idiosyncratic, but empty films. "Ouch!" you must be saying, "Chris, you said you were a big fan. Isn't that too harsh?" If you stick with me to the end of this review for the first film in Takashi Ishii's two part "Black Angel" (1997) you'll understand. Trust me.

The saga of Ikko, a little girl taken from her mother at birth to be raised by the head of a yakuza family starts out as anything but a formulaic script. Once Ikko's adoptive yakuza parents are assassinated by Nogi (Jinpachi Nezu), a young rival gangster and Chiaki (Miyuki Ono), the embittered daughter of the murdered elder yakuza boss the six-year-old Ikko is entrusted to a female gun-for-hire, Mayo (Reiko Takashima), the "Black Angel" of the title. The combination of a veteran killer and a cute kid has definitely been done before, but Ishii, who also wrote the script, doesn't milk this duo for long. After a truly iconic scene in which Mayo blows away a group of thugs sent to kill little Ikko the "Black Angel" takes the girl to the airport and sends her off to Los Angeles where she will be safe. End of story... for the moment.

Fast forward 14 years and a 20-year-old Ikko, now played by Riona Hazuki (Parasite Eve, Retribution) steps off a plane from L.A. accompanied by her boyfriend with only one thing on their minds: to find Nogi and avenge the murder of her parents, but she finds the world of her childhood bears little resemblance to what she remembers. Nogi is now the head of a powerful yakuza clan and Chiaki is right there by his side. What's most shocking is that Mayo, Ikko's childhood protector, has been hooked on drugs by Nogi's gang and is a pathetic junkie running a seedy night club. Ikko is forced to take on the persona of the Black Angel as she makes her way through the criminal underworld to Nogi and revenge.

Now that sounds good, doesn't it? On paper it certainly does, but I found "Black Angel: Vol. 1" to be flat, somewhat cheap and worst of all dull, and that brings us back around to Suzauki-san, as well as his contemporaries Yasuharu Hasebe and Shunya Ito. I couldn't help thinking of these maverick filmmakers as I sat through "Black Angel: Vol. 1" As much as the script borders on truly classic tragedy especially when we discover *SPOILER* that Chiaki is in fact Ikko long lost birth mother I just felt that Ishii didn't bring enough... hell, he didn't bring any... flare to this film.

Again, one could argue conversely that Ishii's aesthetic is entirely different from Suzuki, et al. That he goes for a grittier, underplayed realism. Fair enough, but if the audience is bored, which I found myself being, then there's a flaw in that plan. During the scenes where Ikko and her boyfriend break into an impromptu dance number in their hotel room, or she is chased through an abandoned warehouse by Nogi's men that a voice inside me was screaming for the intervention of a mad genius like Suzuki. It was his gift to take sub-par scripts or film concepts and turn them into gold with his skewed viewpoint. "Black Angel: Vol. 1" had the potential to be something as precious. It could have even have been the genesis of the contemporary equivalent of such legenedary female heroes as Lady Snowblood or Sasori, the Female Convict Scorpion, but without any creative flare it falls far too short of its potential.

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